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Literacy in the Persianate World

Writing and the Social Order

Edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway

Publication Year: 2012

Persian has been a written language since the sixth century B.C. Only Chinese, Greek, and Latin have comparable histories of literacy. Although Persian script changed—first from cuneiform to a modified Aramaic, then to Arabic—from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries it served a broader geographical area than any language in world history. It was the primary language of administration and belles lettres from the Balkans under the earlier Ottoman Empire to Central China under the Mongols, and from the northern branches of the Silk Road in Central Asia to southern India under the Mughal Empire. Its history is therefore crucial for understanding the function of writing in world history.

Each of the chapters of Literacy in the Persianate World opens a window onto a particular stage of this history, starting from the reemergence of Persian in the Arabic script after the Arab-Islamic conquest in the seventh century A.D., through the establishment of its administrative vocabulary, its literary tradition, its expansion as the language of trade in the thirteenth century, and its adoption by the British imperial administration in India, before being reduced to the modern role of national language in three countries (Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan) in the twentieth century. Two concluding chapters compare the history of written Persian with the parallel histories of Chinese and Latin, with special attention to the way its use was restricted and channeled by social practice.

This is the first comparative study of the historical role of writing in three languages, including two in non-Roman scripts, over a period of two and a half millennia, providing an opportunity for reassessment of the work on literacy in English that has accumulated over the past half century. The editors take full advantage of this opportunity in their introductory essay.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology


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pp. v-vi

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Penn Museum International Research Conferences: Foreword

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pp. vii-viii

For more than a century, a core mission of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has been to foster research that leads to new understandings about human culture. For much of the 20th century, this research took the form of worldwide expeditions that...

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pp. ix-xiv

The revolution that culminated with the departure of the Shāh in 1979 changed the way we think of Iran. During the 1980s a large Iranian diaspora established communities in key cities in America, Europe, and Asia. Some began to question whether modern Iran remains the same country as...


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pp. xv-xvi

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Note on Transliteration and Referencing

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pp. xvii-xviii

Romanization of the Perso-Arabic script is a perennial problem in scholarly publication. Although standardization has always been a basic aim, each scholarly subcommunity has its own perspective on the problem. In reconciling the differences we have been unable to live up to...

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Introduction: Persian as Koine: Written Persian in World-historical Perspective

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pp. 1-68

Persian emerged as the common language of court life and administration in the Islamic world east of Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries (2nd and 3rd centuries into the Islamic era). The process began in Khurasan, the large historical region of southwest-central Asia, which besides the...

Part One: Foundations

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pp. 69-158

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1. New Persian: Expansion, Standardization, and Inclusivity

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pp. 70-94

Starting in the 9th century of our era, Persian came to be a major contact vernacular and an international literary language over an area spanning, at its maximal extent, the Iranian plateau from the south Caucasus to the Indus, Central Asia from Khiva to Kashghar, and the northern...

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2. Secretaries, Poets, and the Literary Language

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pp. 95-142

I will try to show in this chapter that the formal, written, courtly language of the Persian-using courts, at least up to the 13th or early 14th century, was created and developed as result of the dynamic interaction of the work of the secretaries and the poets, with an increasingly important...

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3. The Transmission of Persian Texts Compared to the Case of Classical Latin

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pp. 143-158

The remarks presented here are a by-product of research on the textual transmission of certain Persian prose texts of the medieval period. This in turn stems from an interest in Classical Persian literature which has benefited from the attention to detail encouraged by the experience of...

Part Two: Spread

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pp. 159-231

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4. Persian as a Lingua Franca in the Mongol Empire

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pp. 160-170

It could be argued that the most celebrated European Persian-speaker of the Mongol period was the one such person of whom everyone has heard: the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. But is such an assertion credible? In 1995, Dr. Frances Wood published her skeptical take on Marco’s travels...

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5. Ottoman Turkish: Written Language and Scribal Practice, 13th to 20th Centuries

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pp. 171-195

The written Persian language is remarkable for its stability over a millennium of time. In contrast, the interesting thing about Ottoman written culture is that although Ottoman Turkish was intimately linked with Persian throughout its existence, although Ottoman scribes based...

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6. Persian Rhetoric in the Safavid Context: A 16th Century Nurbakhshiyya Treatise on Inshā

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pp. 196-231

The emergence and spread of New Persian across greater Iran, Central Asia, and beyond to Anatolia, the Caucasus, and South Asia was undoubtedly one of the most profound developments in terms of literary and administrative dynamics in the medieval Islamic world. By the 16th century...

Part Three: Vernacularization and Nationalism

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pp. 233-358

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7. Historiography in the Sadduzai Era: Language and Narration

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pp. 234-278

In this chapter I examine two genres of premodern Persian historiography by reviewing two chronicles written during the period of the Sadduzai dynasty (1747–1842) in Afghanistan. One conforms to the literary style of chancery protocol and the other is a popular history written...

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8. How Could Urdu Be the Envy of Persian (rashk-i-Fārsi)! The Role of Persian in South Asian Culture and Literature

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pp. 279-310

Language permeates every aspect of cultural life from lullabies to funeral rites. What happens when such fundamental rhythms of life are overtaken by a foreign language? The new language brings new cultural paradigms. The influence on the speakers depends to a large extent on the...

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9. Urdu Inshā: The Hyderābād Experiment, 1860–1948

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pp. 311-327

The Nizām’s State of Haidarābād (to use the standard system of Romanization), officially known as Mamālik-i Mahrusa-i Sarkār-i ` Āli, ruled by the Āsaf Jāh dynasty (1724–1948), the largest princely state of India, never hesitated in taking risks of experimentation with political, administrative...

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10. Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and in England during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

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pp. 328-358

Persian served as the imperial language in India for 300 years, from the time of the Mughal Empire through the early British Empire. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries in both India and England, Persian teaching became highly contested by rival representatives of these...

Part Four: The Larger Context

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11. The Latinate Tradition as a Point of Reference

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pp. 360-387

The history of Persian as an imperial language, as a vehicle of cultural continuities, and as a focus of communal identity, whether of an ethnic, religious, aesthetic, or intellectual nature, is one of the great sagas of civilization. As such, it demands comparison with similar stories if we are to...

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12. Persian Scribes (munshi) and Chinese Literati (ru). The Power and Prestige of Fine Writing (adab/wenzhang)

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pp. 388-414

The Chinese and Persian writing systems both facilitated the maintenance of impressive polities and lasting cultural traditions. In each of these cases, the chief guardians of the scripts were elite, learned scribes: the...

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pp. 415-417

We have followed the trajectory of written Persian from its emergence as a new koine well over a millennium ago down to its recent fragmentation and decline, and we have indicated how comparison of Persian with the parallel trajectories of Latin and Chinese can illuminate the...


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pp. 418-423


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pp. 424-437

E-ISBN-13: 9781934536568
Print-ISBN-13: 9781934536452

Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Persian language -- History.
  • Persian language -- Written Persian -- History.
  • Writing -- Iran -- History.
  • Literacy -- Iran -- History.
  • Iran -- Intellectual life.
  • Iran -- Social life and customs.
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